Monday, March 26, 2012

Howard Schultz Orders a Steaming Double Shot of Hypocrisy.

I had a little time to kill Sunday.

My tween daughter's recent windfall of black market cupcake cash had been burning a hole in her bedazzled billfold, so we cruised down to the consumer crap cluster, a.k.a. Southcenter Mall, and parted ways to allow her and her BFF to enjoy some unencumbered shopping bliss.

I waved goodbye clutching a paperback novel and my writer's journal, and searched for a place to plant my backside for a couple of hours while nursing a cup of joe.

Naturally, the familiar "green-mermaid-posing-spread-eagle-like-larry-flint-was-doing-the-photo-shoot" brand popped into my brain as the go-to coffee option.

Then I reconsidered.

It seems that Starbucks and its charismatic coffee czar, Howard Schultz, can't manage to duck the spotlight for long, ever.

Schultz's relationship with Seattle, Starbucks' birthplace and also mine, is similar to that of an uncle who shows up every Thanksgiving, hands each kid a twenty and then gets drunk and makes creepy, inappropriate comments to your fifteen-year-old sister.

The guy concocted the formula for the perfect snake oil—a legal, overpriced drug which goes down like a smooth warm milkshake and peps you up like a ten-dollar bill found in an old windbreaker.

Methodically convincing us that we crave these creamy cups of yes, he eventually persuaded us that the best part of waking up wasn't Folger's, but a venti drip Pike Place in our cup. With room.

And as the company wrestled greater market share from the likes of Maxwell House and Hills Brothers, so too did Mr. Schultz hurl his cult of personality into the public forum. Last November, he called upon businesses to boycott political donations until there was genuine, bipartisan cooperation in Washington.

Yeah, that'll happen right around the time the varicose veins on my left calf turn into deliciously ropy Red Vines.

He even briefly flirted with the idea of running for president last November. Wow. Obviously his compensation package entitles him to complimentary shots of delusional swagger.

But Howard Schultz's most recent, and possibly most impactful, public stance, has been his support for a gay marriage bill passed by the Washington state Legislature this year. Starbucks management, in a letter to employees, wrote, "This important legislation upholds our belief in the equal treatment of partners. It is core to who we are and what we value as a company."

Well isn't that just sweeter than a peppermint chip latte?

Oh, and make no mistake, there has been backlash. The National Organization for Marriage has launched a website entitled, where people can sign a petition against the company, and as of last Friday, six thousand open minded folks had pledged their support.

I'd probably be far more inclined to believe that Schultz's motives are noble had it not been for an event which transpired during the summer of 2006. After having purchased the Seattle Supersonics of the National Basketball Association for two hundred million dollars in 2001, he held onto the franchise for five years before selling Moistlandia's oldest major league sports franchise to an investment group from Oklahoma City.

For three-hundred-fifty million dollars. Not bad for five years' work.

And beginning in the fall of 2008, the former NBA champion Seattle Supersonics trotted onto their new home court, two thousand miles away, as the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Okay, so you're not a sports fan. You couldn't care less about transactions consummated between billionaires over an enterprise whose product is pampered, overpaid giants. Point taken.

But it's not about basketball; it's about the man, Aubrey McClendon, to whom Schultz sold the Sonics and realized a profit of one-hundred-fifty million bucks.

Aubrey Kerr McClendon is chief executive officer and co-founder of Chesapeake Energy Corporation in Oklahoma City. Chesapeake is one of America's premier propagators of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a method of injecting highly pressurized fluid into solid rock to extract natural gas through newly created channels.

Fracking is a highly controversial practice and is actually banned in many countries after having been proven to contaminate water tables and air quality. Stories have emerged of residential tap water actually bursting into flames.

If polluters had a hall of fame in Pittsburgh or Tacoma, Aubrey "Motherfracker" McClendon's bust would adorn the lobby next to the entrance to the BP Oil Spill Café and Gift Shop. And Howard Schultz, part of the new class of self-proclaimed environmental stewards, profited handsomely from that man's misdeeds.

But there's something else about Mr. McClendon, something which paints Schultz a brighter shade of hypocrite than anything Home Depot has to offer: During 2004, McClendon, together with co-owner Tom Ward, donated over one million dollars to Americans United to Preserve Marriage, a conservative Christian group which opposes same-sex marriage.

Did I mention that Schultz made a one-hundred-fifty million dollar profit when he sold the team to that homophobic polluter? Oh, that's right, I did. Sorry.

I wonder how Howard Schultz would respond. Six thousand signatures on a website is nothing when compared to the overwhelming positive publicity involved in supporting same-sex marriage. Could be nothing more than an Econ 101 cost-benefit analysis.

Is the Java Jehovah's heart in the right place? Is his company assuming a courageous stance in the face of intolerance?

Or is Starbucks' platform on human rights just another highly calculated business maneuver, manufactured by the preeminent consumer huckster of our time to sell more high-octane caffeine to the masses?

That's the problem—I don't know.

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